Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Danish Church, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Playwright, Poet, Actor
Executive summary: Apology
English actor and dramatist, born in London on the 6th of November 1671, the eldest son of Caius Gabriel Cibber, the sculptor. Sent in 1682 to the free school at Grantham, Lincolnshire, the boy distinguished himself by an aptitude for writing verse. He produced an "Oration" on the death of Charles II -- whom he had seen feeding his ducks in St. James's Park,and an "Ode" on the accession of James II. He was removed from school in 1687 on the chance of election to Winchester College. His father, however, had not then presented that institution with his statue of William of Wykeham, and the son was rejected, although through his mother he claimed to be of "founder's kin." The boy went to London, and indulged his passion for the theater. He was invited to Chatsworth, the seat of William Cavendish, earl (afterwards duke) of Devonshire, for whom his father was then executing commissions, and he was on his way when the news of the landing of William of Orange was received; father and son met at Nottingham, and Colley Cibber was taken into Devonshire's company of volunteers. He served in the bloodless campaign that resulted in the coronation of the Prince of Orange, and on its conclusion presented a Latin petition to the earl imploring his interest. The earl did nothing for him, however, and he enrolled himself (1690) as an actor in Betterton's company at Drury Lane.
After playing "full three-quarters of a year" without salary, as was then the custom of all apprentice actors, he was paid ten shillings a week. His rendering of the little part of the chaplain in Otway's Orphan procured him a rise of five shillings; and a subsequent impersonation (1694) on an emergency, and at the author's request, of Lord Touchwood in The Double Dealer, advanced him, on William Congreve's recommendation, to a pound a week. On this, supplemented by an allowance of £20 a year from his father, he contrived to live with his wife and family he had married in 1693 -- and to produce a play, Love's Last Shift, or the Fool in Fashion (1696). Of this comedy Congreve said that it had "a great many things that were like wit in it"; and John Vanbrugh honored it by writing his Relapse as a sequel. Cibber played the part of Sir Novelty Fashion, and his performance as Lord Foppington, the same character renamed, in Vanbrugh's piece, established his reputation as an actor. In 1698 he was assailed, with other dramatists, by Jeremy Collier in the Short View. In November 1702 he produced, at Drury Lane, She Wou'd and She Wou'd Not; or the Kind Impostor, one of his best comedies; and in 1704, for himself and Anne Oldfield, The Careless Husband, which Horace Walpole classed, with Cibber's Apology, as "worthy of immortality." In 1706 Cibber left Drury Lane for the Haymarket, but when the two companies united two years later he rejoined his old theater through the influence of his friend Colonel Brett, a shareholder. Brett made over his share to Wilks, Estcourt and Cibber. Complaints against the management of Christopher Rich led, in 1709, to the closing of the theater by order of the crown, and William Collier obtained the patent. After a series of intrigues Collier was bought out by Wilks, Doggett and Cibber, under whose management Drury Lane became more prosperous than it ever had been. In 1715 a new patent was granted to Richard Steele, and Barton Booth was also added to the management. In 1717 Cibber produced the Nonjuror, an adaptation from Molière's Tartuffe; the play, for which Nicholas Rowe wrote an abusive prologue, ran eighteen nights, and the author received from George I, to whom it was dedicated, a present of two hundred guineas. Tartuffe became an English Catholic priest who incited rebellion, and there is little doubt that the Whig principles expressed in the Nonjuror led to Cibber's appointment as poet laureate (1730). It also provoked the animosity of the Jacobite and Catholic factions, and was possibly one of the causes of Alexander Pope's hostility to Cibber. Numerous "keys" to the Nonjuror appeared in 1718. In 1720 Drury Lane was closed for three days by order of the Duke of Newcastle, ostensibly on account of the refusal of the patentees to submit to the authority of the lord chamberlain, but really (it is asserted) because of a quarrel between Newcastle and Steele, in which the former demanded Cibber's resignation. In 1726 Cibber pleaded the cause of the patentees against the estate of Sir Richard Steele before Sir Joseph Jekyll, master of the rolls, and won his case. In 1730 Anne Oldfield died, and her loss was followed in 1732 by that of Wilks; Cibber now sold his share in the theater, appearing rarely on the stage thereafter. In 1740 he published An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian... with an Historical View of the Stage during his Own Time. "There are few", wrote Oliver Goldsmith, "who do not prefer a page of Montaigne or Colley Cibber, who candidly tell us what they thought of the world, and the world thought of them, to the more stately memoirs and transactions of Europe." But beside the personal interest, this book contains criticisms on acting of enduring value, and gives the best account there is of Cibber's contemporaries on the London stage. Samuel Johnson, who was no friend of Cibber, gave it grudging praise.
In 1742 Cibber was substituted for Theobald as the hero of Pope's Dunciad. Cibber had introduced some gag into the Rehearsal, in which he played the part of Bayes, referring to the ill-starred farce of Three Hours after Marriage (1717). This play was nominally by Gay, but Pope and Arbuthnot were known to have had a hand in it. Cibber refused to discontinue the offensive passage, and Pope revenged himself in sarcastic allusions in his printed correspondence, in the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot and in the Dunciad. To these, Cibber replied with A Letter from Mr. Cibber to Mr. Pope, inquiring into the motives that might induce him in his satirical works to be so frequently fond of Mr. Cibber's name (1742). Cibber scored with an "idle story of Pope's behavior in a tavern" inserted in this letter, and gives an account of the original dispute over the Rehearsal. By the substitution of Cibber for Theobald as hero of the Dunciad, much of the satire lost its point. Cibber's faults certainly did not include dullness. A new edition contained a prefatory discourse, probably the work of William Warburton, entitled "Ricardus Aristarchus, or the Hero of the Poem", in which Cibber is made to look ridiculous from his own Apology. Cibber replied in 1744 with Another Occasional Letter..., and altogether he had the best of the argument. When he was seventy-four years old he made his last appearance on the stage as Pandulph in his own Papal Tyranny in the Reign of King John (Covent Garden, 15th of February 1745), a miserable paraphrase of Shakespeare's play. He died on the 11th of December 1757.
Cibber's reputation has suffered unduly from the depreciation of Pope and Johnson. "I could not bear such nonsense", said Johnson of one of Cibber's odes, "and I would not let him read it to the end." Henry Fielding attacked Cibber's style and language more than once in Joseph Andrews and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Cibber possessed wit, unusual good sense and tact; and in the Apology he showed himself the most delicate and subtle critic of acting of his time. He was frequently accused of plagiarism, and did not scruple to make use of old plays, but he is said to have been ashamed of his Shakespearian adaptations, one of which, however, Richard III (Drury Lane, 1700), kept its place as the acting version until 1821. Cibber is rebuked for his mutilation of Shakespeare by Fielding in the Historical Register for 1736, where he figures as Ground Ivy.
If Cibber had not as much wit as his predecessors, he displayed in his best plays abundant animation and spirit, free from the extreme coarseness of many of his contemporaries, and a thorough knowledge of the requirements of the stage. His most successful comedies kept their place in the acting repertory for a long time. He was an excellent actor, especially in the role of the fashionable coxcomb. Horace Walpole said that as Bayes in The Rehearsal he made the part what it was intended to be, the burlesque of a great poet, whereas David Garrick degraded him to a garretteer.
The Apology was edited in 1822 by E. Bellchambers and in 1889 by R. W. Lowe, who printed with it other valuable theatrical books and pamphlets. It is also included in Hunt and Clarke's Autobiographies (1826, etc.). Cibber's Dramatic Works were published in 1760, with an account of the life and writings of the author, and again in 1777. Besides the plays already mentioned, he wrote Woman's Wit, or the Lady in Fashion (1697), which was altered later (1707) into The Schoolboy, or the Comical Rivals; Xerxes (1699), a tragedy acted only once; The Provok'd Husband (acted 1728), completed from Vanbrugh's unfinished Journey to London; The Rival Queens, with the Humours of Alexander the Great (acted 1710), a comical tragedy; Damon and Phyllida (acted 1729), a ballad opera; and adaptations from Beaumont and Fletcher, John Dryden, Molière and Pierre Corneille. A bibliography of the numerous skits on Cibber is to be found in Lowe's Bibliographical Account of English Theatrical Literature.
Father: Caius Gabriel Cibber (sculptor)
Son: Theophilus Cibber (b. 1703, d. 1758)
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